Where do batteries go when they die?

Sadly, about 2.5 billion batteries end up in the U.S. waste stream annually, where they’re destined for landfills or, worse, incinerators.

In landfills the mercury, lead, cadmium, nickel and other heavy metals and toxins in the batteries can slowly leach into soil and groundwater. When burned, some of the metals and toxins can vaporize and contaminate the air and surface water.

There are two basic types of battery: wet cell and dry cell. Wet-cell batteries power cars, boats and motorcycles, and most vendors of them also collect them for recycling. Dry cell batteries are far more abundant. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans buy about three billion dry-cell batteries every year. Dry-cell batteries include the whole family of batteries that power watches, portable power tools, laptop computers, cell phones, flashlights and toys, with the non-rechargeable alkaline variety representing the greatest portion of the market.

The green mantra, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” lends itself well to batteries. It’s easy to reduce the number of batteries that require disposal by reusing and eventually recycling rechargeable batteries. One rechargeable battery can take the place of hundreds of non-rechargeables, and nearly every battery display in stores now features compact chargers and rechargeable batteries for a larger initial investment that pays its dividends over time. Currently, rechargeables comprise only one percent of U.S. battery sales. However, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) estimates that the demand for rechargeables is growing at twice the rate of the demand for disposable batteries.

Rechargeable batteries come in a range of sizes and uses, varying by classifications including voltage, efficiency, and chemical composition. There are nickel cadmium (NiCd), nickel metal hydride (NiMH), lithium ion (Li-ion), lithium ion polymer (Li-ion polymer), and rechargeable alkaline manganese (RAM). They differ in terms of cost, clean manufacture, power output, energy density, how long they hold a charge, and how many repeat recharges you get out of a battery. Rechargeable batteries can be recharged anywhere from 50 to 1000 times, depending on the type.

For ordinary household use, rechargeable alkaline batteries such as EnviroCell (http://www.envirocell.com/) and Pure Energy (http://pureenergybattery.com/products.php) are a viable alternative to disposable alkaline batteries. They are relatively cheap, versatile, highly efficient, manufactured with minimal environmental impact, contain a high charge-capacity, hold their charge very well, and can be recharged 50-100 times. They are most efficient if they aren’t completely discharged before each recharging.

Stand-alone battery chargers are often sold with a set of batteries, and generally accept only one specific battery type, e.g., NiMH or alkaline, and some are built to accommodate different sizes. Different brands of batteries can be charged in one charger as long as they have the same chemical composition. Like chargers, rechargeable electronic devices usually require specific types of batteries and most, like cordless phones and power tools, come with the necessary hardware for recharging.

When rechargeable batteries no longer hold a charge, it is time to recycle them. Some dry-cell batteries are more desirable to recyclers than others. For example, button-type batteries, such as those in watches and hearing aids, contain mercury, silver, cadmium, lithium, or other heavy metals as their main component. The value of recoverable materials, their small size, and their simple handling requirements make recycling easier relative to other battery types.

The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Program, a non-profit public service organization, recycles four kinds of rechargeable batteries: nickel-cadmium, nickel metal hydride, lithium ion, and small-sealed lead. They’ll also accept small electronics, like cell phones, for recycling. Find a collection point in your area at http://www.call2recycle.org/

Ordinary non-rechargeable alkaline batteries have recycling potential, though not to the same degree as the other dry cell batteries. NEMA has questioned the necessity and cost effectiveness of recycling these batteries, citing “the low toxicity of the battery materials (e.g. steel, zinc, and manganese); the total energy requirements and environmental impacts associated with the collection, transport, and recycling of the batteries; the amount and value of the metals recovered; and the overall cost.”

Nonetheless, biodegradable plastics manufacturer Perf Go Green, has unveiled a non-rechargeable alkaline battery that comes with a free recycling arrangement (see http://perfgogreen.com/perfpower.html). PerfPower batteries will be recycled through Battery Solutions, a Michigan-based company that also recycles all types of batteries for a fee through their iRecycle program (see http://www.batteryrecycling.com/residential).

Battery Solutions spokesperson, Justin Jungman, acknowledged that it’s costly to recycle batteries, which is why the company charges for the service. Jungman pointed out that several states have banned batteries from the waste stream, increasing the necessity for battery recycling services. He also said that recycled alkaline batteries have been made into low-grade steel products such as construction rebar. Individuals can pay $34.50 for a postage-paid box large enough to send in 12 pounds, an average year’s worth of household battery waste, and small electronics to Battery Solutions, where they will be sorted by chemical type and sent to the appropriate facilities for recycling.

One last option for reducing battery consumption is to seek out battery-free electronic devices. You’ll never have to worry that you won’t have emergency light and information with flash lights and radios you crank or shake to build an electric charge. For real efficiency, you can find combination battery-free radio/flashlight/nightlight and flashlight/cellphone chargers. “Automatic” or “kinetic” watches harness their wearer’s motion for power. There’s an innovative new battery-free cordless computer mouse on the market that uses radio frequency for power. And well-made solar-powered outdoor lights and calculators are reliable alternatives to those powered by batteries or a distant, coal-fired power plant.

With the wide availability of rechargeable batteries, battery-free products and recyclers that accept batteries, it is possible to eliminate batteries from the waste stream, saving consumers money in the process. Bottom line, reducing battery use and recharging and recycling batteries makes good environmental and economic sense.

Published 08/24/2009 at http://www.ColoradoLovesGreen.com

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